History of Christianity Pt I: Rome and a Messiah

In order to have a solid understanding of the historicity of Jesus and to be able to approach the New Testament intelligently, there are several historical realities with which one must first be conversant. Since that training takes many years of study, much of it at the graduate level, I obviously can’t give too much real depth in a blog post, but I can at least provide a rough structure.

Waiting for the Messiah

The first thing one must understand is what Messianic expectation meant in Judaism in general, and in 1st C Palestine in particular. And to do that one must get a grasp on how Judaism thinks, because it is quite different than how Christianity thinks. (Yes, I know, religions are collections of ideas and do not ‘think’ as such. I’m using a verbal shortcut to express the overall ethos or collective reasoning behind each faith. Stop quibbling.)

Judaism and the Nature of the Past

Judaism is connected to its past in a way that Christianity, for all of its hegemony and doctrine, and even its more recent (in the timeline of human history) origins is not. Take Passover, for example. Passover remembers the Jews in captivity in Egypt, huddling in silence as the Angel of Death passes over each house on its journey of murderous vengeance against the firstborn of Egypt. Now one can get lost in the weeds of how the blood of the sacrificial lamb is what saves each faithful household from the wrath that is visited on the wicked. But that is a Christian invention. For the Jews, the blood of the lamb is merely a symbol of obedience, and that obedience is what saves the righteous. That it was a lamb is in keeping with centuries of sacrificial custom in Judaism.

But for Jews, the meaning of Passover as a remembrance is just that: remembrance, not of the lamb, but of the captivity, the suffering, the enslavement, and the deliverance from that captivity. And by that, I mean the literal captivity; the notion that the captivity is a metaphor for sin is again, a later Christian interpretation. The Haggadah, or the Passover liturgy, is very particular about how it phrases its description of the event:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L‑rd, our G‑d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy. (excerpt from the Maggid [story] section of the seder)

Setting aside the pure historical fact that the captivity and therefore exodus from Egypt never happened, let us deal with the text here on its own terms. If you read this over, you may notice something odd: the text used the first person singular: ‘we,’ ‘our.’ You may be quick to suppose that’s a stylistic convention meant to imply that this was written by the immediate descendants of those enslaved. you would be wrong. For the Jew, the first person signifies that they were there. Each and every Jew believes himself to have been there in an existential way. Past and present blur, overlap, and lose meaning. The past IS the present. We can see this in Jewish literature and liturgy down through the centuries. This is in fact, the core of what it means to be Jewish, the core of the Jewish faith.

In part, this is because the core of that faith lies in the covenant from Sinai, which we will return to later. In part it is because the nature of Judaism lies in connecting the present to the past; events make sense only as part of a continuing biblical narrative. Scholar Gabrielle Spiegel, in her article Memory and History: Liturgical Time and Historical Time, wrote that for Jews, “recent or contemporary experiences acquire meaning only insofar as they can be subsumed within Biblical categories of events and their interpretation bequeathed to the community through the medium of Scripture…”

What has this to do with messianic expectation in the first century? Everything. For the Jews, occupation under Roman rule was the continuation of the struggles for control of the promised land, against oppressive kingdoms and its own series of sometimes flawed rulers. With the characteristic Jewish tendency to refer events back to scripture, the chosen people were living in the era of Judges and Kings, the biblical books that described those times. And, like in those books of the Torah, Jews of the 1st C longed for a political leader, a judge or king, as in those books, to once again put the promised land under the authority of the chosen people.

The Singular Nature of the Hebrew God

Two things must be noted here; one being that Jews were not seeking a religious deliverer. Simply put, they had no need of one. God made his covenant –his binding pledge–with the people of Israel on Sinai. No reason existed to assume that covenant had been broken; to think so would make of god a promise-breaker, a liar, a betrayer. There is no evidence that Jews in the 1st C (or any other century) came to conclude any such thing.

Furthermore, god is, was, and always will be singular for the Jew. Every Jewish prayer begins “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”) The singular nature of god is core, and of all the possible sins in Judaism, professing otherwise, or blasphemy, is the only one that is considered unforgivable, and in some historical eras, demands one die before committing it. No Jew was anticipating the birth of god or the son of god, or hoping for a spiritual savior. Anyone claiming to BE god, or the son of god, or god in another person alongside god the father, would have been considered a blasphemer and dealt with by Jewish authorities. There are records of a few such persons, claiming to be god, but those occurrences begin centuries before the 1st C, and continue long after it. (For more on the changing perspective on sin in Judaism, Johnathan Klawan’s book Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism is a good place to start. I will also be adding a piece on the changing role of the martyr relative to blasphemy in Judaism).

Whoever may have inspired the character of Jesus was not claiming to be anything like the character of Jesus as he is now depicted. Careful reading will reveal that in the earliest gospels, even that character is very careful not to declare himself as god or as divine in any way (More on the descriptors we find in the text in another installment). He is, in fact, a Torah observant Jew. It is not until the latest texts, most notable the gospel of John, written between around 100-120 CE, when Christianity had become a distinct entity, that the character makes such lofty claims. (See Geza Vermes’ excellent work The Changing Face of Jesus for more on this.)

The Reality of Life as a Roman Province

The second thing to note is purely historical and involves the nature of Roman rule in territories it added to the Empire. It may titillate the persecution fetish of Christians to imagine otherwise, but by and large, Roman rule was a hands-off proposition. Rome was not an oppressing, tyrannical occupier. Quite to the contrary:  Rome brought roads, aqueducts, currency, the protection of the Roman legion, trade access to a vast empire, and any number of other very desirable things. Some tribes even petitioned for admission to the Empire. Nor was Rome a religious persecutor. Again, contrary to what the common Christian narrative suggests, as a rule, Rome didn’t care about local religious cults, and left them alone. In fact, Rome often adopted local deities as part of the Roman pantheon. Sol Invictus, the god most beloved by the Roman legions was an import. All that Rome demanded was a token obeisance to the Roman state gods as a sign of loyalty to the Empire. So in the early centuries of Roman occupation, when the Jews refused, in accordance with their fervent prohibitions on blasphemy, Rome was frankly baffled. One god? Only one? One must also recall that, in the eyes of the vast majority of the ancient world, Jews were, to put it mildly, weird. Nevertheless, Rome granted exemptions to Jews from these observances and made other concessions that allowed Jews to go about their customary business.

The opposition to Roman rule was not about a brave underdog mounting a plucky resistance to a tyrannical master. That opposition, and the messianic expectation that went with it, were almost entirely grounded in the biblical narrative. It wasn’t that life was bad under Rome. In fact, economically, Judea thrived under Roman rule. In addition, local authorities were largely left alone to run their cities and towns as they had always done, with some supervision by Roman territorial governors. In a time when communication traveled only as fast as a fast-walking horse, Rome ruled a vast territory and had no interest in micromanaging every backwater under its purview. And let us also be reminded, that Judea was in a very real sense, a backwater. So local authorities, in the case of Judea, the temple hierarchy, retained most of their role, particularly since their authority was bound up in the Temple.

Judea itself wasn’t exactly united, either. There was a deep divide in Jewish thought as it related to how to live in the world. The more conservative Jews, concentrated in Judea itself,  who favored a deeply traditional interpretation of Torah, and a severe cultural separation from non-Jews were opposed by more open, cosmopolitan, Hellenized Jews who lived throughout the empire. The former thought the latter were sellouts, and the latter thought the former were mired in the past. Meanwhile, the rest of the Hellenized world looked at Judea much as we look at the Amish – quaint, backward, and kind of strange. But the Jewish authorities (again, largely religious figures) in Judea understood their position with some pragmatism, took stock of the benefits of Roman citizenship, and even as they hoped for liberation on a grand narrative grounds, took pains to avoid antagonizing Rome.

One thing Rome did not tolerate was sedition. Its demands on citizens were minimal, but rabblerousing was met harshly. Understanding the nature of messianism as a political aspiration should make it obvious that messianic preachers would typically have been dealt with quickly and severely by Rome. It is also only reasonable to expect that Jewish authority figures would cooperate with Rome when it came to apprehending such rabble-rousers, and there are many instances where that is exactly what happened. While there is not one single mention of the specific figure of ‘Jesus’ as we understand the character in the vast and detailed records of the Empire, (and that in itself is telling), we have every reason to expect that whoever inspired the character of Jesus was one (or several) of those political rabble-rousers who was dealt with harshly by Rome. He even (allegedly) started a riot in the Temple, which while (significantly) not documented anywhere outside the biblical account, would most certainly have been the sort of thing to draw Rome’s ire, and which would definitely make the Jewish authorities want to hand him over, lest that ire spread to the temple itself, and make Rome rethink the exemptions it had given them.

A Note on the Roots of Anti-Semitism

I want to pause here and address the trope that ‘the Jews killed Jesus’ that developed in later centuries, became foundational in the violence and persecution of Jews, and has remained so right up into modern times. In short, no, they didn’t. Did Jews turn over more than a handful of political rabble-rousers to the Roman authorities over the years of occupation? Yes, quite a few. Were they crucified? Yes. It might surprise many to learn that crucifixion was not unique to Judea, or to the 1st C. Crucifixion was used by Persians, Macedonians, Carthaginians, and others. It was intended to be brutal, less for the sake of brutality towards the convicted, but more as a deterrent to others who might contemplate a similar crime. As such, in Rome in particular, it was most notably used as punishment for treason, rebellion, and sedition. It was not used for religious transgression. Rome had no punishment for religious transgression, because Rome didn’t really have a concept of religious transgression. Was one of those seditionists ‘Jesus?’ Well, maybe, but given the ambiguity of the identity of Jesus, that’s a bad question to ask. Was one of them a messianic preacher names Yeshua? Since the name  ‘Yeshua’ (an Aramaic variant of ‘Joshua,’ a beloved biblical figure) was about as common as Bob or Joe today, it is very likely, even inevitable. We have records of such events happening from at least a century before the alleged life of the character of Jesus until well after his death. But it is important to remember two things: messianic preachers were not preaching religious messages, and even if they were, they would have been considered blasphemers as described above and would have been a matter for the Jewish authorities to handle themselves. Such things would have been well below Roman notice, so Jews would have had no reason to even involve Rome. So the notion that Jews turned over a religious figure to Rome for them to execute as a form of persecution holds no water whatsoever. The other thing to recall is that Christianity as a separate religious entity did not exist until around 100 CE. More on that, and tensions between Jews and Christians in another installment. But the upshot here is that Jews did not kill the Christian savior.